There are two kinds of switches: toggle and rheostat. We know which one Ernesto Valverde is because against Celta Vigo in their house, a place where the past two seasons, with the proper XI Barça has shipped four goals and lost both times, Valverde rotated like a carousel in a tornado.
Semedo Mina Vermaelen Digne
Gomes Paulinho Coutinho
Denis Suarez Alcacer Dembele
This lineup came out and Barça Twitter, pretty much everywhere in cyber Barça was in full meltdown.
“Too little, too late.”
“Too much rotation, why couldn’t he have … ”
“We’re going to lose. He just wants to tank the unbeaten season.”
Smart people talked about formations, while Valverde must have looked at a fidget spinner and said, “I have the perfect formation. Look at these marbles in this bowl. Now watch when I move the bowl. See?” And his assistants nodded, because that’s what you do when a crazy person starts talking. And we know he’s crazy because you just don’t do a full rotation XI at a ground where your team has lost the last two times it visited. You don’t do a rotation XI when your team is looking to make history, when you have relied on the gala XI, latched onto the same players like a limpet. You don’t do a rotation XI when you know people are sideeyeing you after the Roma loss. You might not be on Twiter, but people tell you about the hashtags.
During a Chicago Bulls/Portland Trailblazers championship series, in one game the Bulls were getting tonked. Coach Phil Jackson, figuring “Hell, we’re getting tonked anyhow, might as well rest the lads,” and subbed in the subs. Bobby Hansen is all you need to know. Who? Bobby. Hansen. A three was drained, and Portland missed. Then another three, and Portland missed. Again. A basket and suddenly a 19 point lead was hovering at single digits. Then it happened. The scrubs brought the team back, so Jackson subbed Jordan back on to finish the job. Legend.
Valverde must have wanted to etch his badass cred onto cast iron, with a laser. The bench? Messi, Suarez, Umtiti, Alba, Sergi Roberto, Cillessen, Vidal. It was banter of the highest order.
The match started, and it was as open as we have ever seen a Barça match in a very long time. Celta wanted to get at the B team, who wanted to get at Celta. And there was a lot of running around, some busy work for MOTM Ter Stegen, but it was, somehow at zeroes as Valverde patted that fidget spinner tucked away in his pocket, nodded smugly and thought, “YOLO, fam.” And then it happened:
Paulinho header off the post, off a set piece. People were still convinced that the team was going to lose, so knives were being honed in preparation for after the match. It sure was fun to see everybody running around kinda like headless chickens, and the questions persisted: why everything, all at once? Celta missed. Then Ter Stegen saved. Then it went all crazy, and you started to think that maybe, just maybe, there is something crazywonderful to this Liga season when on an attack, Alcacer one-touched a lob of a pass to Dembele, who lashed it home off the volley, across the keeper into the far corner. Improbably it was 0-1 and the bench went wild.
Dembele went over to hug his countryman Umtiti first, and there were smiles all around, even if we hadn’t yet realized that Celta signed Own Goal, whose agent somehow is able to circumvent the normal transfer rules. Yerry Mina was the culprit, after Gomes got smoked, the cross eluded Vermaelen and Mina decided, for some unfathomable reason, to spare his team the ignominy of having a Celta player score the actual goal. It was 1-1, no less than Celta deserved given the chances they had, and nobody minded much because the team was going to lose anyhow.
Then, it happened. Again. On a break, again from play that was some level beyond open, Semedo crossed to Paulinho who, in his typical “Look what I found” fashion, bundled the ball home. It was 1-2, and jaws were on the floor. Just as quickly as Semedo sprinted into space, the mood in Barçaland went from “Why did he have to rotate everybody,” to “See? This is why he should have rotated.” Because sentiment is as malleable as a wild ol’ football match.
The reasons for subbing on Messi and Sergi Roberto, only Valverde knows as the B team was hanging on and the mainline players were having a good time being spectators. Celta went into “Oh, crap!” mode, sitting deep in the presence of Messi, who almost led his team to a 1-3 lead, which would have been absurd. Then off the break, running free and easy, Sergi Roberto decided he needed more rest, taking down a Celta player from a clear scoring chance. Apparently his trust in Ter Stegen isn’t as absolute as many supporters. Straight red, and Barça was down to ten.
Still, it was all looking good until Semedo left too much space for the passer on a cross, and Mina heard “Squirrel!” and went running to a point to intercept the pass, presumably, rather than marking up on Aspas. Ter Stegen made the right play, but plunked the ball off of Aspas, who knocked it home with his arm. Clear handball for an equalizing goal that Celta deserved, but by this time it was outrageous for a fanbase that had gone from “We’re going to lose” to “Hey, we could win this.”
And after the match, the team was still unbeaten and Valverde was still suspect, even as the subs proved why they are subs and why the gala XI is thus. The gaps in quality are too significant. Denis Suarez coughed up numerous balls, almost all of which wound up as dangerous Celta scoring opportunities. Semedo is much better buttressed by the first-line defense than he is part of a wild bunch. Gomes is mercurial. Coutinho and Paulinho got work done, standouts along with Ter Stegen, who was probably wonder what the hell his “defense” was doing at many a moment. It was fun, it was awesome and it proved absolutely nothing even as football does what it does, which is race off to seek permanent solutions from temporary situations.
There is necessity in belief in the notion that the team was too tired to do anything except fiddle while Rome burned. If you believe that, then you believe that this kind of rotation during the season, the very kind of rotation that Luis Enrique was pilloried for, would have made the difference. If you watched the Roma match and wondered how the team had, in a week’s time forgotten how to play football, different notions rattled around your brain. The only thing resolved is this:
YOLO pulled out a draw at a difficult away ground. YOLO almost pulled out an improbable win, and might have had Valverde not doubted his fidget spinner muse. Sure, Celta could have scored about 48 goals, but they didn’t. Because football is a crazy game, which is probably the only conclusion that we can draw from this, aside from the subs being about as ready to make a real difference in the season as we thought they were. Oh. And football was fun again, bereft of the anxiety attendant to Barça matches, the psychic freedom that came from looking at the lineup and already knowing, an hour before the match began, that your team was going to lose, so let’s have some fun. Fun. That weird concept that has been so absent from this season as people looked for every reason to be miserable, from “The football isn’t pretty,” to taking after this or that player, looking at this or that storied convention being violated, rules etched into a stone tablet in the basement of the Museu.
And a season that has been spent mostly in a tizzy, was a hoot. For one match that brought about an improbable result. Enjoy the respite, because YOLO.